By David Manel
Charlie Morton speaks emotionally and highly of Jeff Locke
Two Thursdays ago, as the Pirates clubhouse was closing to the media, Charlie Morton and I were finishing up an interview. It had been a long conversation, so I felt bad that we were now going over the time allotted for media availability. With the doors closed and the press gone, players were appearing from the different rooms that encircle the clubhouse and were beginning to prepare for the game ahead. Now I felt like I was intruding on the players' private time. But Morton was making a point that he seemed to want to finish, so I stayed.
The normally soft-spoken Morton, who is cautious with his opinions and typically speaks with a deliberate and halting cadence, was, on this occasion, speaking more directly and emotionally than I had heard from him before.
He was responding to my final question of the interview, which was about the maturation of the two younger pitchers on the staff, Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole. Morton first discussed how impressed he was with how Cole was handling all the pressure of the expectations that were placed on him at a young age. (More on that later.) Then, he started talking about Locke, and began by expressing frustration with way that the left-hander has been treated by the fans and media.
"I still remember the boos at the end of the 2013 season, when we were struggling, and feeling disappointed at what people perceived Jeff to be," Morton said. "I don't want to offend anybody, but that upset me. Because without Jeff Locke, who knows where the 2013 Pirates are. You can safely say, with Jeff, we make the playoffs and he was a huge part of that."
Morton also brought up an incident that to this day that still bothers not only Locke, but many of his teammates. It happened during the time in the 2013 season when Locke was way over-performing his peripherals and the hot topic was whether his success was sustainable. While he was riding high and getting ready to head to the All-Star Game, Locke started to regularly face questions about whether he was aware of the discontinuity between his success and peripherals — indeed, he was even asked about the difference between his FIP and ERA.
"In 2013, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for three, four months of the season — legitimately one of the top five pitchers in baseball," Morton said firmly. "Then the questions started coming in, people started asking him about sabermetrics and regression and 'You're due to fail.'"
I told Morton that I remembered the FIP and ERA question, in particular. "Yeah," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Morton admires how Locke has rebounded from a strange 2013 season and some struggles over the past two seasons.
"For him to wind up in Triple-A and to struggle while he was there in 2014, then come back up and do a really good job — he was solid last year," Morton said. "Then this year to struggle and now I don't know how many good outings it's been in a row — six really great outings? Now, he's back to where he was. ... I know exactly how hard it is to deal with struggle. I don't know what it's like to not have a job after an All-Star season."
Finally, and this is when the clubhouse was closing to the media, Morton had one more important thing he wanted people to know about Locke and overcoming struggles.
"You don't think of major leaguers as having struggles," Morton said. "Like, legitimate real world struggles. But Jeff has had those struggles. I don't know if you know about his mom being diagnosed with cancer. It happened recently and then [his pitching has been] up-and-down. And he cares so much about baseball. He cares so much about the team and doing his part. There are [real] burdens [he's had to face] and he's done that and overcome it."
After the game that night, I asked Locke about how his mother was doing and if he was okay with me publishing Morton's quote. I'm happy to report that after going through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, his mother is currently cancer free. Locke said that he found out that his mother was sick last year right before a September start against the Cubs. He still went out and pitched.